Dr. Alexander Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, GCON Elder Statesman, former Nigerian Vice President
By Shola Oshunkeye
(Continued from last week)
Last week, Dr. Alexander Ifeayinchukwu Ekwueme, former vice president, who clocked 80 on October 21, went back in time to recount his ordeal in the hands of coup plotters who toppled the government he ran with President Shehu Shagari on December 31, 1983.
His inference on the putsch would shock you. He said the latent reason the coupists struck was to stop him from succeeding President Shagari were he allowed to finish his second term as scheduled on October 1, 1987.
This week, the multi-disciplinary academic-turned-politician continues his story with his various efforts at helping Nigeria to midwife sustainable democracy and the hiccups he had to subdue in the campaign.
Please, read on.
I read an interview where you said General Gowon’s post war principles of the three ‘R’s-reconciliation, rehabilitation, and reconstruction. There was also his post-war philosophy of ‘no victor, no vanquished’, which you said were terribly, terribly flawed. Do you still stand by that or you have changed your mind?
I think we should draw a distinction between the three ‘R’s and the principle of ‘no victor, no vanquished’. I think I applauded Gowon for the principle of ‘no victor, no vanquished’. But I’m saying that, that was in real terms. In terms of implementation, it was observed more in the breach.
How do you mean, sir?
At every turn, everybody here knew that he was vanquished. Ok, let me give you an example. Let’s say on May 30, 1966, the day Biafra declared secession, if on that day, I had a million pounds in my bank account, and then I came on May 31 and withdrew half a million of that money; and then on June 1, I put back the half a million of the same money. Now, the way it was worked out by the Federal Ministry of Finance, at the end of the war, was that the money I took out on May 31, was good money. But the money I was returning was worthless money in the sense that it was no longer Nigerian money. So, I now ended up with half a million instead of one million. And if you take it all the way that one million could become zero. If you take and put, and take and put, what you take is discounted in the books of the bank. What you put is in fact credited. The debit is accepted but the credit is not accepted. So, it was calculated to impoverish those who are here. That cannot be an implementation of ‘no victor, no vanquished’ post-war philosophy. It is clearly against the vanquished. And then, no amount of money you have, when you go to exchange it, it is 20 pounds! And this 20 pounds, to get it, you have to sweat and fight! So, you can imagine.
This is not to talk about the issue of ‘abandoned property’, when the war was over and the people had to come back to nothing.
That was why I said the spirit in making this pronouncement is commendable but in actual terms of implementation, it was flawed.
Throughout his lifetime, till he died, Dim Odumegu Ojukwu kept saying the east have never been forgiven for the civil war which was principally why it has been impossible for any Igbo man to emerge as president of this country. Do you subscribe to that submission?
Well, I’m sorry, I’m an affected person. So, it is awkward for me to be the one talking about it. But I know that after Gen. Buhari’s coup of December 31, 1983, Umaru Dikko gave a press conference. And he said at that press conference that the plotting of the coup was to prevent me from becoming president in 1987. That, that was the reason they had the coup. So, all this talk about corruption and all that, was neither here nor there.
The actual objective was to get you out of the way.
What was their fear?
Well, I don’t know, but it may because, as Ojukwu said, the East has not been forgiven. It may be because I’m from the East. That is one. And in 1999, PDP, which I nurtured from the scratch, bringing different associations together, nurturing them until we got registered as a political party…
Starting from G34 and…
Yes. Yes. In fact, it started from Institute of Civil Society, to All Politicians Summit, which I chaired in Eko Hotel, and which the military disorganised, and so on…to G. 34 which we formed at a great risk to my own person, then, to getting the different associations to form the PDP under my chairmanship, I handed it over to Chief Solomon Lar on September 12, 1998…
To become the first chairman of the Board of Trustees…
Yes. And then I went to go for the presidency against Gen. Obasanjo who was not around when we formed the party.
Obasanjo, who people had to go and beg from prison to come and run…
And yet you found out that some of those who were with me, dumped me at the last minute and they all went to vote for Obasanjo at the primary in Jos. Then, there was this rumour, again, that they did that because they didn’t think that somebody from this part of the country should be president ‘so soon’ after the civil war. That’s the rumour. And Obasanjo himself, when he came to Amaichi, in my state, I think in January 2001 or so, when he came for the 70th birthday of my friend, Chief Simon Okeke, who was the chairman of the Police Service Commission, he made a statement there publicly that Amaichi was where he had to take the surrender of Biafra. And that within nine years of ending of civil war, we had produced a vice president and we were now talking about looking for president. And that, historically, in some other countries where they had civil war like this, it took them 200 years or more after the civil war for them to become president. He was talking even about America where he said it took a long time before the southerners became president of the USA. He said this openly. So, to a large extent, what Ojukwu said was true.
But there is also this school of thought that believes that there seems to be no unity of purpose among the Igbos, most of the time, especially when it comes to the big stage. They are so factionalised…
Yes, it’s true. Very true because we are Republicans to a fault. We are always described as a people with all chiefs and no aliens. They took from American cowboy films. There, you have a chief, an American Indian, and a thousand American Indians following him when they were fighting against the Americans in battles in the hinterland. There, it was one chief and so many Indians. But here, in this part of the country, we are all chiefs and no Indians. We are all leaders and no followers. Everybody aspires to be a leader, and no one aspires to be a follower.
Can we talk about the state of the nation and coast home, sir? As the first chairman of PDP, and the first Board of Trustees’ chairman, are you happy at the state of your party today?
Not at all. Not at all. I have said so many times that what we wanted the party to be is not what it is now. First, we wanted not just a party, but also a mass movement of all Nigerians. That was why we had four or five associations coming together, and on the we met to ratify the amalgam of these associations, we had many more associations coming to endorse. At the end of the day, we had about 10 associations coming to team up as against the four or five that we started with. And the idea was to a mass movement, to have a party that all Nigerian would have sense of belonging to, a party that would render such invaluable service to the citizens, a party that would enjoy mass support like the African National Congress, which is a century old as is still waxing strong by the day That was the idea.
And unfortunately there were many who did not follow the path of this philosophical underpinning that informed the formation of the party. Some just came to use the party as a vehicle for grabbing power because the party was popular, judging from its G.34 antecedents. It was very popular. And in the very first election, which was the local government election in December 1998, which was the litmus test for the final registration of parties by INEC, PDP swept the polls throughout the country except in the west. So, it was clear that anybody who wanted to be a president of Nigeria would have to belong to PDP to be able to attain that mission. So, a lot of people who didn’t know anything about the spirit behind the formation of PDP jumped in and used it as a vehicle for grabbing power. And haven grabbed that power, they used it to destroy the party. That’s when they wanted to turn the party into a personal fiefdom. They wanted to control the party, where they can use the party to perpetuate their hold on power. So, the first thing was to seize the party, and when the party becomes personal property, it’s no longer the party that we contemplated when we got together, starting from June 1998 to August 31, when the manifesto and the name and the flag and the symbols and the motto and the constitution and all that, were formally adopted.
And some of those who seized power at the executive level did not do justice to the spirit of service, which we emphasised when we came together. We pledged to give selfless service to the people so that they won’t go elsewhere for leadership. Today, the party is a shadow of itself and the entire pillars of democracy, which the party was grounded on, have already disappeared.
Could this have translated to the kind of impunity we see on the national stage in terms of governance? When people win power at the behest of godfathers who they are perpetually beholden to at the detriment of real service to the people, could this be the foundation of the misgovernance that we see?
Yes. As long as one person holds tightly to party power at the national level, in the various states, various godfathers would seize control of the party and dictate what the party does in those states. Which defeats the whole essence of the democratic norm, which informs the formation of the party in the first place.
Sir, don’t you think the PDP itself would have been better for it if Nigeria had a credible opposition? Wouldn’t that have helped its internal democratic mechanisms?
The opposition today is fragmented, and the strength of the opposition is less than national in outlook. And it’s difficult to see how a party or a group that is only interested in a section of the country can rule the country. No matter what you say about PDP and its shortcomings, it still remains the only party that has nationwide relevance. It’s just like the NPN of our time, the Second Republic. In the Second Republic, if NPN was not the leading party in a state, it would be the second. It would be the runner-up. The same thing with PDP in this dispensation.
Finally, in the 1994/1995 constitutional conference, you canvassed for a position about the need for us to have something like regionalism like we had in the First Republic, where we had three regions-Northern Region, Eastern Region, Western Region, and they were competing healthily among themselves.
But it wasn’t popular at the time you suggested it at the constitutional conference.
Yes, because people were intellectually lazy. The essence of what I was saying was that our independence, as Nigeria, was negotiated with our colonial masters on terms agreed by all the political leaders in Nigeria in the run-up to the First Republic over so many years. And the general agreement was that Nigeria would be run as a confederation of regions. Three regions to start with, eventually four regions in 1963. And each of these regions had its own constitution, and each region had a growth rate of as high as 11 percent, persistently, because of competition by the regions and the initiatives taken by the regional leadership. The only two drawbacks to the structure we had then were: one, imbalance in the size of the regions.
You’re talking about the geography of the regions?
Yes, the geography and their putative population. The north was bigger than east and west put together, both in area and in recorded population.
Why did you say ‘recorded population’?
Yes, because I am not satisfied that we have done a proper and reliable census of Nigeria all through the years.
Because we do ad-hoc census. In 1979 August, when we were having a transition committee of the NPN, we suggested that we should set up a ministry of statistics demography so that we would have a record of everything under one umbrella; instead of having FEDECO, as it was then, having voters registration; Ministry of Internal Affairs having national identity card; having the same human beings; the National Population Commission having census. If we had a Ministry of Demography and Statistics, all these things would be there.
It would form our official database…
Yes. Births and deaths would be put into it automatically and the population would be ascertained based on empirical data. But each time we run through a census, it is a crash programme. We dole out money, do a count and push out figures that are out of this world. Then after the figures are out, we start adjusting until we get a figure that appears acceptable. Then, we publish it, and once it is accepted by the Council of State, it becomes the official figure.
Coming back to the question of the drawbacks of the regional structure, the north had vast rural areas and they recorded a census bigger than east and west put together. That was the first draw back.
The second drawback was that, within each region, there was a majority ethnic group and a lot of minority groups. In the north, Hausa/Fulani-majority; with a lot of minorities-Kanuri, Tiv, Junkun, Bachama, Igala, Nupe, Edoma, Gwari and so on. In the west, as it was then, we had Yoruba as the major group, we had Edo, Urhobo, Itsekiri, Isoko and so on. Then, in the East, we had Igbo as the dominant ethnic majority; then, we had Ijaw, Ibibio, Efik, Ogoja, and so on. And there was always tension between the majority ethnic groups and the minorities. In the north, there was the United Middle Belt Congress, UMBC, in opposition to the Hausa/Fulani majority. In the west, there was tension between the Midwest minorities, which eventually led to the creation of Midwest Region. In the east, there was the Calabar/Ogoja/Rivers in opposition to the Igbo majority. So, these were the two drawbacks to Nigeria’s structure at the time.
There was an attempt to cure one of the two drawbacks by having three regions in the North, and three regions in the South so there was parity between North and South.
Now, to the six geopolitical zones…
Then, having three ethnic majority regions and three ethnic minority regions: northwest-mostly of Hausa/Fulani; southwest-mostlyYoruba; southeast-mostly Igbos; northeast-mostly minorities-Hausa/Fulani, Kanuri; north-central- a lot of minority groups-Nupe, Tiv, Gwari, Igala, Idoma and so on, including Yoruba in Kogi; and in the east, we have southeast and south-south
Made up mostly of the minority states of Edo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, and Cross River. So, once we have a balance between north and south, and between majority and minority, that would cure shortcomings in the regional structure of the First Republic. But when we do that, we would be operating on the basis of what we inherited, what we negotiated with our colonial masters, only reorganising it so that we would cure the deficiencies of the structure we had at that time. So, I put this forward in a minority report because the committee in which I served did not want anything to do with. So, I had to do in a minority report which I got eight other members to endorse.
Even to present that minority repot at the plenary caused uproar. They thought they could drown me by shouting me down but it didn’t work. Eventually, I was protected by the chairman, Justice Adolphus Karibi-White, and his deputy, Justice Mamman Nasir. And it was accepted, not as a minority report. It was later adopted and included in the 1995 constitution, which the then head of State, General Sani Abacha was to propagate on October 1, 1998 before he died.
Do you think that regionalism as we had it in the First Republic, plus the amendment you proposed, would have brought us to a much higher level, as a nation, than we are now? Or looking back again, do you think it would still have required some amendments?
Once we get the basic structure right, it was made for greater internal growth because, right now, the central government is so over-burdened and so powerful and the states cannot sustain themselves. They have to go cap-in-hand every month to draw allocation, to share money. The benefit of size and security, which the regions had, does not exist in the states.